I’m always interested in learning how Handmade Book Club members use their books, especially when they’re given to others through acts of kindness.
Club member Daria Wilber is an amazing example of that. I learned through a social media post that Daria had donated a number of her handmade books to a local women’s shelter. I fell in love with the idea and wanted to know more.
What I learned is that Daria has an exceptional background story, full of perseverance and a thirst for art and learning, and she consistently donates her time, talent, and creations for a greater purpose.
Meet Daria Wilber
Daria lives in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, with her husband of 44 years, Philip, and Isaac the Cat. Their daughter, Leslie, lives in the US. She is a writer, a labor organizer, and one heck of a bike mechanic!
Daria has been retired since 2012, so her time is pretty much her own. Some of her favorite creative activities include papermaking, suminagashi, various surface design techniques, sashiko, cut paper art, and baking. She belongs to a local artist group composed of expats from around the world and Mexicans, both indigenous and non-indigenous. They meet once a month, share a meal, and then share their work for feedback. They also meet a couple times a month at various locations to sketch or paint.
In Her Words: Daria’s Story
Please give us a little background and something that has impacted you.
Probably the most overwhelming and influential impact on my life was my diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from Stage 4 Laryngeal Cancer. The initial treatments—chemo, radiation, and surgery—were unsuccessful.
The end result was losing my vocal cords and a permanent tracheostomy. I spent a good deal of time hospitalized; the longest stretch was 10 weeks, mostly in isolation. For close to two years, my primary way to communicate with others was by writing, either by hand or on my laptop. It was a very lonely time for an extrovert.
Despite my situation, I still wanted to make art, so a couple of my papercraft friends and my husband kept me well supplied with beautiful papers, stamps, ink pads, markers, etc. I was able to use my very limited work space to make small books, cards, origami, and the like. I am positive I drove the nursing staff crazy! But I came out of it alive with a genuine respect and appreciation for people who communicate in non-traditional ways. My teaching style has evolved to be mostly speechless: demo-heavy with a lot of large-scale samples and “pantomime” style demonstrations.
When or how did you start creating handmade books?
I had been making simple books for many years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I started to get serious about papermaking and going beyond the basics of bookbinding. I was fortunate to be able to buy a Critter Beater from a mutual friend so I could go beyond a blender and develop a papermaking practice.
Then, in early 2013, I started helping Helen Hiebert in her studio a couple times a year, accompanying her to the CODEX book arts fair and symposium in Richmond, California, and working as her teaching assistant at her Red Cliff Retreat and at Arrowmont. Through Helen, I began to develop a deeper appreciation of the technical aspects of papermaking and artist’s books.
In 2015, I designed and created my first edition of 12 artist’s books and was stunned when I sold three in one day, one to a university’s book arts collection. When we downsized, we sold our home in Colorado and moved to Mexico. There was about a year and a half when I only worked on very small projects. I had packed up a lot of my stuff, including my beater, molds, deckles, and wet press.
Why do you make books? What do handmade books mean to you?
I make books to satisfy my urge to create and to explore design and structure. I make books for the sheer pleasure of creating something unique, small, and beautiful that the recipient can hold in their hands and use at any time of the day or night.
Bookmaking, or learning something that can be incorporated into bookmaking, is pretty much an everyday activity. I do sell some of my books, mostly within the artist and expat communities; however, many I donate. I also enjoy teaching others to make books from things they have on hand, especially from a single sheet of paper.
How did you first get involved with the organizations you’re serving?
One of the women in a book club I belonged to was a psychologist in a shelter for women and their abused children. They were looking for someone to run an arts program for the kids while their mothers were in therapy or job training. I said yes and began a program that ran twice per week: during the day for the little kids and in the evening for the older kids. We did everything: paste papers, bookmaking, and collaborative collage. It was fun and exhilarating for them and for me.
I also volunteer with men in a sequestered drug and alcohol recovery program as well as a program for young adults with functional limitations, mental and/or physical. It’s a privilege to help develop and teach activities that are both meaningful and fun for both populations.
What motivated you to create handmade books for the women’s shelter?
It started with teaching the kids to make simple books. One of the projects they made around the holidays was a pamphlet-bound journal to give to their moms. Even the tiniest kids, with help, made journals for their moms. Once COVID hit, the complexion of the program changed completely. All the shelters went on lockdown. Live-in staff provided arts and craft activities for the kids. The women were still participating in therapy and still needed to journal their journey. So I made journals for them and other women in shelters in the area. I continue to make journals and donate them to this day. Most of these shelters are very well hidden within the community. (They allow very few visitors in and out so the safety and security of the women and/or children can be maintained.)
Do you have a favorite binding to use when making these journals?
Most of the books I donate have 6–8 sections, so I tend to use link bindings and coptic bindings. For me, those bindings are fast and easy. If I really need to whip books out, I use sewn board binding with a French link (not over tape) and make the covers as pretty as possible with beautiful book cloth or decorative papers.
How are the books being used?
The majority of the journals are kept by the women, who, though they are under no obligation to, use them to record their thoughts and feelings as part of their therapy. One of the shelters is the home of seven adolescent girls who have been trafficked by family members. I made journals for them so they would have something bright and beautiful in their lives—something made just for them, no strings attached.
I’m so grateful to Daria for taking the time to share more about her journey in life, in bookmaking, and in her volunteer pursuits.
It’s amazing how just a few sheets of paper, some cover material, and thread can produce something so therapeutic and meaningful. I hope Daria’s story inspires you as much as it did me. Perhaps a resolution for the year 2024 can be to create Handmade Books of Kindness for someone who is ill or disadvantaged, perhaps for a tired mom, someone who is grieving, or even the most random stranger.
As Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Any act of kindness, no matter how big or small, makes an impact.